In decades to come, 2017 will be remembered in history books as remarkable year. But thankfully, there will also be books written about the music that has had a huge impact on culture this year.
In turbulent times, we turn to music for answers, guidance and escapism. Both communities and individuals have had an awful lot to process this year, and that doesn’t exclude musicians, who in times like these, articulate the things that we find so difficult to say ourselves.
We’ve scrutinised over the list. In our Top 20, you’ll find established artists and rising ones who have made lasting impressions with their releases this year. Here are the best releases of 2017 in Jazz and beyond; you’ll have to hold tight for #10-1.
18 \\ Nai Palm – Needle Paw [Sony]
There is an age-old tradition of the front-person from a band going solo, reinventing themselves and the musical direction of their group when (or if) they return. For Nai Palm, the lead singer of Hiatus Kaiyote, going solo for her LP Needle Paw was so much more than just creative departure or experimentation.
Nai Palm consistently leads Hiatus Kaiyote with an unpredictable force. Over the thirteen tracks of Needle Pawhowever, adorned with just guitar and voice, Nai Palm takes the listener on an intimate journey into her songwriting process and musical tastes. Ultimately she envelops them in the emotive strength of her voice. Diaristic yet political, the record is bookended by two ceremonial songs from Aboriginal performer Jason Guwanbal Gurruwiwi, evoking a rich history of indigenous Australian music that goes beyond language and into land and Earth itself.
At times her solo debut is achingly intimate, as on penultimate number Homebody. Elsewhere it’s full of rhythmic swagger as on Jimi Hendrix cover Electric Ladyland, or unapologetically esoteric, as on Blackstar/Pyramid Song/Breathing Underwater—a cover for which she sought explicit permission from David Bowie’s estate to perform. Needle Paw is a love letter to the human voice and its capacity for self-expression in all its guises.
14 \\ SZA – CTRL [Top Dawg Entertainment]
Three years in the making, SZA’s CTRL was the record that almost never happened. Coming to prominence writing hits for the likes of Rihanna, Beyonce and Nicki Minaj, when it came to the release of her debut LP, SZA professedly had around 200 tracks written-many of which were studio improvisations and yet none of which she could be persuaded to release. After her studio confiscated her hard drive to stop her anxious tinkering, the result is one of the best-sounding R&B albums to come out not only this year but perhaps this decade.
Leading with Travis Scott-featuring single Love Galore, the listener is hit with the impeccable control and power of SZA’s voice—at turns gentle and rounded, before switching to full-voiced power and emotive potential. CTRL isn’t just jilted R&B in the style of Love Galore, though. The diversity of production is one of its best features, showcasing SZA’s vocal and songwriting skills, shape-shifting between the woozy guitars of Drew Barrymore to the nocturnal seduction of The Weekend and earnest confessional of 20 Something. If nothing else, CTRL is a singular creative vision and proof that you shouldn’t ever listen to your anxiety.
[This piece was published in EZH Magazine on 19/12/17]